It's likely no competitor in this year's New York City Marathon has come as far or overcome as much as Tatyana McFadden. And no competitor has ever accomplished what the 24-year-old wheelchair racer has the chance to do when she winds through the Big Apple on Sunday.
Still, even if she doesn't win the 26.2-mile race through the city's five boroughs for the second time in her career, the energetic University of Illinois student has already had a world-beating year.
A native of St. Petersburg, Russia, McFadden was born with spina bifida, a birth defect characterized by the incomplete development of the spinal cord. She started her life paralyzed from the waist down. After her birth mother abandoned her, she was sent to an overcrowded and underfunded orphanage that didn't have the money to buy her a wheelchair.
After several surgeries as an infant, she gained mobility as a toddler by shuffling along on the floor with her hands and arms.
On Sunday, she'll use those strong hands and arms to attempt what no person -- male or female, able-bodied or not -- has ever done: win the Boston, London, Chicago and New York City marathons in the same year. McFadden is already the first to win the Boston, London and Chicago triple crown in a single year, the latter of which was a course-record 1:42:35 in the Windy City that gave her a one-second win over Swiss rival Manuela Schaer.
Early this year, McFadden became the first athlete to win six events at the Paralympic world championships, taking gold medals in every race from 100 meters to the 5,000 meters. She also won three golds at last summer's Paralympic Games in London and raced alongside her 16-year-old, Albanian-born adopted sister, Hannah, in the 100-meter finals at the Paralympics.
"It's been a pretty good year so far, but winning New York won't be easy," McFadden says. "It would be unbelievable to win all four and have that grand slam in the same year. All I can do is go into New York and give 110 percent and if I am right there but wind up second, I won't be upset with that at all."
This will be McFadden's fourth race in New York, having won in 2010 and been derailed by a flat tire during her repeat bid in 2011. Her toughest competition this year might come from Amanda McGrory, who won the last NYC Marathon in 2011 and holds the course record, and who finished third last month in Chicago.
Given her background, McFadden knows how hard work and small efforts can make big impacts. Both have been an integral part of her emergence as an athlete, and have also shaped her character. Her life took a turn for the better in 1995 when Debbie McFadden, who was visiting Russia as a commissioner of disabilities for the U.S. Health Department, adopted Tatyana as a single mother and brought her home to suburban Baltimore.
"She was very anemic, very sick," Debbie told the Baltimore Sun recently. "When I brought her to [Johns] Hopkins [Hospital], they said she would not have a long life. I thought, 'How can I keep her alive?'"
Sports turned out to be a big part of that effort. Her adoptive mother initially got Tatyana swimming to help build her strength, and that led to gymnastics, wheelchair basketball, sled hockey and track and field.
As a teen, though, McFadden faced roadblocks when she wanted to compete in high school races against able-bodied runners, because school officials said her racing chair created a safety hazard and gave her an unfair advantage. Instead, the school allowed McFadden, who has been racing since age 8, to race alone on an empty track.
She and her mother successfully filed suit against the Howard County Public School System in 2006 and won the right to race against able-bodied competitors, a win that is credited for the eventual passage of the Maryland Fitness and Athletics Equity for Students with Disabilities Act, requiring schools to give students with disabilities the opportunity to compete in interscholastic athletics.
Attending the University of Illinois was a natural fit for McFadden. The school's Adapted Varsity Athletics Program has a long tradition of leadership and excellence in wheelchair sports. It excels at wheelchair basketball and has produced more wheelchair road racing champions than any program or club in the United States.
McFadden and her college teammates train just like any other elite runners in the world. During the spring, they focus on short, fast track events in which speed and strength are crucial. But the marathoners in the group, like McFadden and McGrory, also spend long hours spinning on the cornfield-lined country roads on the outskirts of Champaign. When winter conditions set in, they train indoors on rollers.
"Being a full-time student, I feel like I'm in the movie 'Groundhog Day,'" McFadden says. "I wake up, go straight to class, then spend a couple of hours training and then head home and do homework. Then I do it again the next day.
"It's been really tough to be a full-time student and preparing for marathons, especially because we often train twice a day. It's been a really fun ride, but it's definitely been difficult trying to balance everything."
Even though her times are much faster than those of able-bodied runners -- she won Boston in 1:45:25 -- McFadden says there are many correlations between wheelchair racers and able-bodied runners when it comes to the marathon, specifically in training, nutrition and racing. In the final mile in Chicago, she says her body was completely fatigued, she couldn't see straight and her arms felt like Jell-O, forcing her to dig deep to sprint to the finish.
"Trying to transition to the marathon is a challenge, and that goes for any runner. I get it, I was there," says McFadden, who was primarily a sprinter until entering the 2009 Chicago Marathon on a lark.
"My advice to any runner would be that it's going to be difficult to push your body beyond what you've done before. But stick through it. Those days you don't want to run or don't want to push through it are the most crucial days to help achieve your goals."
McFadden will graduate from Illinois in December with a degree in human development, and she has the desire to become a child life specialist and provide emotional and psychological support to critically ill children. Last year, she led an unsuccessful effort against a 2012 Russian law that prohibits adoptions of Russian children by American parents.
That's part of the reason she is motivated to try to make the U.S. team in cross-country skiing for the 2014 Winter Paralympics in Sochi, Russia.
"It will take a lot of work to make the team, but going back to Russia and be able to show an example of a living success story would be great," McFadden says. "I love sports and competition and want to continue my passion and inspire others as long as possible."